A group of mercenaries led by a priest retrieve the holy grail, rescue a damsel in distress annoying a local big-wig, stumble through a cave into the cursed valley of death, fight off a shed load of zombies and pretty much all die. I've watched some films light on story in my time but Mark Atkins' Knight of the Dead takes the proverbial fucking biscuit. One thing I know though, is narrative is often relinquished to cement an aesthetic, and slow pacing, lingering shots and moody artistic cinematography can still make quite an effective a movie. I'm guessing this was Atkins' aim; style over substance so to speak, the problem is though that this aesthetic isn't altogether that successful and doesn't really hide the film's many other issues.
Saying Knight of the Dead is bleak is putting it mildly. Set during the time of the black death in the 14th century, with a third of the whole worlds population dead or dying and pestilence rife, and filmed in the sparse barren welsh hills in winter and the rain, Atkins decided this wasn't enough and the film is entirely composed with an additional blue/grey/take-what-remaining-colour-there-is-out filter. The result isn't entirely unsuccessful and I certainly found a calm beauty in Atkins' gentle sweeping aerial pans across the rain-lashed heather but it's not a film that could ever be accused of being cheery.
Leuthar (Feth Greenwood) leads the rag-tag ensemble. A warrior-priest steadfast in his beliefs and in his mission to transport the relic he has been entrusted with. Calon (George McCluskey) is the local lord of the manor and all-round bad guy and bully who chases the group into the valley of hell. The actors do a reasonably adequate job of delivering dialogue as sparse and grey as the ambience, though in truth the drab and weary conversations act as mere filler between the well choreographed and reasonably authentic medieval combat sequences that I presume they were really signed up for. They eventually meet up with the only surviving refugee Badriyah (Vivien Vilela) who I can only presumed was added for an entirely inappropriate and nonsensical later scene, where she gets to take her top off, and the film tries make sense of the narrative by explaining the valley is actually Gehinnom (Gehenna), and the zombies were the suicides and possessed souls deemed beyond the hope of salvation as prophesised by Daniel. It was nice of it to try I suppose, but it's all too little, too late and too forced. The reality is that the film is really just a series of elaborate zombie sword fights interspersed with fluff to drag it all out.
The zombies are a mixed bag. Shuffling, staggering, lifeless souls they resemble grubby peasants more than the demons the group labels them. Ok, I can respect not going down the lots of make-up and effects route, I mean Romero started this way but those in Knight of the Dead are an unsynchronised hodgepodge, basic and not particularly convincing. Also whilst putting early effort into establishing the head-only-trauma trope they must have either run out of fx money or the will to live, either way as the troupe face wave after wave of zombies they somehow dispatch them quite successfully with slashes, gashes and stabs to the body. And the film is full of inconsistencies like this. They're slow, they're groaners, they're brainless and quite rubbish on their own yet the first they encounter is a young girl who somehow knows to retreat, hide on the ceiling like a possessed demon and throw herself half way across the room.
The bloodshed effects aren't bad though there must have been a discount on intestines at the gore-emporium and as said the swordplay is nicely executed but like the story and dialogue it just all falls a little flat. For all the criticism, I did find a beauty and appreciation for the sweeping harsh landscape and I can understand the aesthetic Atkins was striving to achieve. The bleakness and pace certainly paint a picture but it's not enough to save the film. I've read some pretty harsh criticism regarding the plot, or lack of and it's entirely founded. Lacklustre characters, adequate acting and distinct lack of content denigrate the few good things it does firmly entrenching the film to the lower ranks. 3/10.